Million Dollar Money Drop, a new game show that debuted Monday night on Fox and will run new episodes most nights this week, is a deeply frustrating show. It’s frustrating because it’s so damned compelling, even as almost everything about it is awful. It’s a show you simply can’t stop watching, even as you know there’s probably something better on. Put simply, the series screws up almost everything you can screw up about a game show, but the central idea of the series, the one that’s made variations on it a success all over the world, is so intriguing that it gets by almost entirely on that. The show probably deserves a much lower grade than it’s getting, but there’s something so ineffably enjoyable about it that it’ll probably lure me back eventually, just to see if the kinks have been worked out. And there’s something to be said for a show that’s compulsively watchable, no matter how much basic stuff it screws up.
Start with that premise, which is gold, combining, as it does, the bare bones of Family Feud and rudimentary quiz shows with everybody’s favorite thing: dropping stuff down laundry chutes (something there’s too little of in this modern world). The idea is that every competing couple (having a married couple that hectors each other playfully seems to have been the operant idea behind casting this show) gets $1 million to play with. The cash is stacked up in a grand pyramid, with $100 bills tied off into 50 clumps of $20,000 each. (Host Kevin Pollak seems fond of talking about how carefully the studio is guarding the money, though I suspect this is network-enforced patter.) The players start with four different options as answers to the rudimentary questions Pollak asks, and they may spread their money across three of those four slots, or bet it all on just one or two of them. At least one slot must be clear. Then, after 60 seconds, the money starts to drop.
It’s impossible to overstate just how compelling this very bare bones premise is. People get a lot of money. You get a great VISUAL of that big pile of money. And the frantic moments when the contestants try to decide how much money to put on which options are often fun. Furthermore, when someone loses a big pile of cash, there’s a sickening jolt to the moment. All that money, disappearing down a big chute, never to be seen again by anyone but greedy Fox executives. There’s a pang to it, and the visual reality of it is so striking that it drives the tension of everything else that happens. As the show pushes forward, reducing the number of slots to three, then two, but always requiring players to leave one slot completely open, things get even more hectic, until it comes down to one final question and whatever cash the players have left, riding on one answer they probably have no real idea of.
Let’s be clear: Nothing here is rocket science. The questions aren’t hard at all, most falling into the Family Feud-style, “We (or in this case, an independent organization) surveyed this many people, and they said what?” questions. The few that have hard and fast answers, like a question in the second hour about whether the film Frida, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, or Erin Brockovich won the Best Actress Oscar, are pretty simple, provided you have even a basic understanding of the subject matter (and you get to pick the category your question is in, so you probably will). (The player gets the above question right solely by remembering a photo she once saw of Julia Roberts holding an Oscar—and she remembers the dress more than the Oscar.) But the players are generally fun, the visuals are addictive, and the tension grows and grows through the hour.
Or, at least it grows and grows theoretically. In practice, Million Dollar Money Drop may be one of the slowest moving shows in television history. What seems like a lifetime is spent on every single possible moment, and while the time goes by quickly enough, the long pauses between hearing the question and finding out the answer are stretched out to the point of absolute ridiculousness. There are only seven questions in the whole game, and when you spend an hour on seven questions—most of which are insanely easy—well, there’s a lot of dead air. Much of that is taken up by Pollak wandering around and repeating the same sorts of standard host banter. He’s not a very compelling host, though, too low-key and fond of turns of phrase that don’t really work. (He keeps promising the show’s first contestants one of the greatest weddings of all time, even as their money comically dwindles.)
There’s an even bigger problem with this that you might have already spotted: When an hour is taken up on each set of contestants, there’s little to no suspense. In a perfect world, every contestant gets to the seventh question and has to bet everything they have left on one of two options, even if they’re not really sure of the answer. (Neither couple in tonight’s preview leaves with any money.) But because people do dumb things and bet all of their money on answers that are wrong, they can go out on the third or fourth or sixth question. This leads to something like the second hour of the premiere, where it becomes more and more obvious that the couple is going to bomb out on question number six, because the show is simply running out of time slot. Theoretically, this doesn’t matter if you’re on the edge of your seat, but everything is so logy and Pollak is so ill at ease that there’s no way to find it truly suspenseful. The ideal way to watch Million Dollar Money Drop is with the fast-forward button on your DVR remote firmly depressed.
There’s another problem here, though. Earlier this year, when Minute To Win It debuted, my colleague Noel Murray talked about how pervasive the influence of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? has been on the game show genre. There’s really no reason for this, other than the fact that Millionaire was the last primetime game show phenomenon. Thus, every network that tries a new spin on the format feels like it has to go back to the last time it really worked. The thing is, though, is that even though there are tremendously few primetime game shows, the Millionaire template is hidebound and ossified now. It's a museum piece. Those long pauses between a question being answered and the confirmation of that answer now just stand in the way of having a good time, and the flashing lights, ponderous music, and swooping camera now seem laughably self-serious. (My favorite touch here are the attractive women standing on the edges of the set for no real discernible reason.)
What’s more, Millionaire had a good method of keeping people off-balance (and of keeping viewers coming back night after night): It was, more or less, a serialized game show. When time ran out, the show ended, and the current contestant was back the next night, picking up where he or she left off. This meant that it felt like anything could happen. The player could bomb out on question one, and the show would find someone new to take his or her place. The player could make a run at the million that took up the full hour, with the last few questions bumped to the next night’s show. There could be five players in one episode or just the one. It was a format that made the contestants characters, as much as anything else, and it was a format that was elastic enough to, say, burn through the easier questions in a matter of minutes.
Million Dollar Money Drop just doesn’t have this option, which makes its second hour somehow shockingly predictable, even after having seen but one episode earlier. You know the contestants we have are the contestants we’re going to get, and there’s so much money that most contestants are going to have enough left over to at least make it to question six or seven. But where the show should be zeroing in on the two things that make it compelling—the contestants frantically shoveling clumps of bills onto the slots and the vision of money disappearing down a long chute—it instead keeps focusing on the pauses, on the moments in BETWEEN these things happening, to a laughable degree. There’s something so entertaining at the base of Million Dollar Money Drop that this almost doesn’t matter, and with a few tweaks, it could be a highly engaging show. But as it is, it’s somehow both insanely watchable and fatally flawed. At one point, I yelled, "You stupid sons of bitches!" as the players made a fatal error, but after waiting a whole commercial break for them to find this out, I realized just how little I cared in the first place.